25 years later, Bass Hall’s angels are still ‘delivering music and drama’ to Fort Worth
What started out as a way to hide ductwork became two of the most iconic pieces of Bass Performance Hall’s exterior.
To minimize disruptions to performances, the air ducts would need to be as far away from the stage as possible — without compromising the grandeur of the building’s main facade.
The building’s architect David M. Schwarz said members of the construction committee considered several options, from horses galloping out of the building, to cacti flanking a set of doors and a bank of arched windows.
“The angels served multiple purposes for the hall. I understood when we did them I was either making or breaking my career, that they would either be celebrated and embraced or everybody would call me a great fool,” Schwarz said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report. “It was a phenomenal risk, but I thought it was a risk worth taking because I was pretty sure I was right.”
Twenty-five years on, the angels symbolize the purpose behind the building, Schwarz said.
“There is a Platonic dialogue that debates whether art is the creation of man or something inspired by the gods. The dialogue concludes that art is the result of the gods sending inspiration to man via the angels,” he explained. “And our angels were meant to say that the gods, whoever, and whatever they are, are delivering music and drama to Fort Worth.”
The team put together a list of more than 60 sculptors to find the right person for the job.
As the list narrowed and prospective sculptors were invited to bring in models of their designs, Márton Váró was the clear winner.
“Márton was the only one who actually wanted to carve the angels out of limestone and carve them himself,” Schwarz said.
Some of the other artists suggested using a waterjet to carve the angels or making casts. Váró, however, even carved his two-foot scale model out of limestone.
‘It sounded like heavenly music to me’
The Hungarian sculptor was in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship in the early 1990s.
Though he was working out of an open air studio at the University of California-Irvine, he had also worked on a project at the Plaza of the Americas in Dallas, as Bass Hall was seeking sculptors.
“Out of the blue, I received an invitation to participate. I didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, but it turned out that Bass Hall was already designed and they wanted two angels on the facade,” he said.
As Váró tells the story, the right person must have seen his sculptures in Dallas and added his name to the list.
“I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” he recalled, speaking by phone from Carrara, Italy, where he is working on pieces for a public art installation in California. “I cut tiny little pieces of limestone up to scale, 52 pieces in one angel.”
He asked a friend for help with the brass trumpet, took his model and flew to Fort Worth.
He believes that his decision to use limestone for his model, rather than plaster or another material, is part of what helped him impress Ed Bass, who spearheaded the project, and earn the job.
“He said that he not only liked it but he saw that I knew how to make it,” Váró said.
Throughout the process, Váró had three main questions: Do you want a sculptor or someone who will execute a drawing? What material will be used? And would he be able to visit the quarry?
“I wanted to touch the stone,” he explained. Knowing the material and having an idea of how it would weather the elements was important for his planning process.
Being selected was a great honor for Váró.
“It sounded like heavenly music to me,” he said.
‘Performing arts centers are at the core of the cultural ecosystem’
The downtown building, officially known as the Nancy Lee and Perry R Bass Performance Hall, is owned and operated by Performing Arts Fort Worth. It is an anchor in the arts scene and is the permanent home of four arts organizations – Texas Ballet Theater, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, The Cliburn and the Fort Worth Opera – in addition to performances from roving Broadway productions.
Bass Hall’s role in fulfilling the mission of Performing Arts Fort Worth is just as important, if not more, than when the building first opened its doors, the group’s President and CEO Dione Kennedy said in a statement to the Fort Worth Report.
“Performing arts centers are at the core of the cultural ecosystem of a community; their health and capacities to support partners and make space (literally and strategically) for other organizations in the market are critical to the longevity of a community’s cultural ecosystem,” she wrote. “I’m proud to say that over the last 25 years, Bass Performance Hall has served as one of those anchors.”
During its silver anniversary season, the team added “A Tribute to Peace – North Texas Welcomes Kyiv City Ballet” to its schedule and expanded the accessibility and reach of its programming by offering a sensory-friendly performance of The Lion King during the Broadway tour’s local run.
“We look to the future with optimism and purpose as we strive to further strengthen the cultural ecosystem of Fort Worth and the North Texas region,” Kennedy said.
‘Concert halls represent the highest cultural aspirations of the city’
Schwarz has designed several spaces in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, including a stadium for the Texas Rangers in Arlington, American Airlines Center in Dallas as well as Fort Worth’s Central Library and Sundance Square Plaza.
When he started working on Bass Hall, he decided to travel abroad to study other great music halls around the world.
“Early on in working on the Hall it became clear to me that all the consultants knew a lot more about concert halls than I did, and that really bothered me,” he said.
Schwarz estimates that he toured somewhere between 50 and 60 concert halls in Europe. A significant portion of the exterior of Bass Hall was inspired by the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, he said.
But the amount of space Schwarz had to work with was most similar to Carnegie Hall in New York.“The most difficult thing about Bass Hall was the front to back dimension,” he explained. “The front to back dimension is the exact same dimensions as Carnegie Hall.”
Bass Hall encompasses a full city block, and is bordered by Commerce, Fourth, Fifth and Calhoun streets.
The footprint sounds large, but the need to accommodate about 2,000 patrons for shows with acoustical needs varying from operatic arias to full symphony orchestras and broadway chorus lines, presented another design challenge.
Bass Hall needed a large “fly tower,” or backstage space, that could host lighting and a vast series of pulleys and counterweights that help the crew “fly in” and “fly out” set pieces and other stage materials.
While this design would be ideal for theatrical or ballet performances, having a tall cavernous column above the stage would create an acoustical nightmare for an orchestra.
The solution is a special ceiling Schwarz said the team called “the garage door.” The device is stored vertically on the furthermost wall backstage and, like a garage door, can be deployed to help reflect and amplify sound out into the audience.
“Concert halls represent the highest cultural aspirations of the city at the time they are built,” Schwarz said. “I think that Bass Hall does represent the cultural aspirations of Fort Worth. If you look at Fort Worth’s museums and cultural facilities, it’s quite singular in the quality of cultural institutions that it has for a city of its size.”
‘It’s the quality that matters’
The pair of angels delivering drama and art to Fort Worth are made of 52 separate pieces and stand at 48 feet tall. Combined, they weigh roughly 293,048 pounds, or 146.5 tons, according to “Let the Angels Play: The Commemorative Journal for the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall.”
The size of the angels is striking to many of the people who see them, and they remain the largest pieces that Váró has done.
To help bystanders understand the scale, the sculptor describes the angels as being as tall as “six Brooke Shields,” but, to him, their size is not the most important element.
“I don’t care about the size because it’s the quality that matters,” he said. But still, “This was probably one of the best, the biggest accomplishments I’ve ever had.”
Over a period of three years, Váró carved the angels in sections, working first from his studio in California and later traveling to Texas.
Like his small model, the angels are each composed of 52 blocks that he carved from the bottom up.
‘All of us held our breath’
The angels represent both modern and traditional design, Schwarz said.
“You’ve certainly found anthropomorphic forms in ancient Greek architecture and ancient Roman architecture, but you don’t find them in architecture today,” he said. ”The structuring behind the arms was really quite sophisticated and couldn’t have been done … in the 19th century. I think it’s both a building very much of our times, but with a great deal of historic references.”
Aside from the models, the first time that anyone saw the completed sculptures was when they were affixed to the building, facing Fourth Street.
“All of us held our breath as they went up,” Schwarz said.
But when the scaffolding and the burlap that covered the facade came down, the team breathed a sigh of relief.
“They looked exactly like they were supposed to look,” he said.
Schwarz was recently in Fort Worth for the celebration in honor of the building’s 25th anniversary.
“Back when there were phone books, one of the best awards we thought we could get was to have one of our buildings put on the front of the phone book because it meant that the community had embraced the building and chosen it to represent them,” he said.
Seeing some familiar faces and several new ones at the celebration for the hall was a heartening sign that the building continues to be an important piece within the fabric of the community.
“That, to me, is enormously gratifying,” he said. “It really has become a building of the community by the community.”
Disclosure: Wes Turner is a member of the board for the Fort Worth Report and Bass Performance Hall. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.